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Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport 
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
Interbane wrote:
What of the first commandment in Christianity, or the absurdly over-the-top discrimination against other religions that you find in Islam. These are defenses against competing idea groups, and have been exceptionally effective over the years. Add to this the emphasis each religion places on preaching the word across the land. Converting others is a virtue. Then Pascal's wager to keep people from disbelieving after they've swalllowed the pills.

These ideological features are some of the most powerful belief manipulators you can imagine. Whatever comparative competing ideas there may be out there, I can't see many winning against that lineup. I would confidently say that religion is structured intentionally to maximize contagiousness. All you have to do to see this is look at the characteristics of the component ideas.

I'm not saying the characteristics of the ideas are more influential to the spread of religion than the selective advantage it confers to the group. We don't need to reduce the past to a causal chain rather than a causal web. I'm sure multiple influences all worked together. Contagiousness of ideas mixed with group advantage. To focus on one over the other is all too human. There are likely other extraneous factors as well that have had an influence.

I must have had my mind on the old days of loosey-goosey polytheism when when I said that conscious manipulation of memes might have nothing to do with the use of religion to fortify groups. When we do speak of manipulation, we bring in one of the key differences between the way memes work and the way genes do: we have a large part in the "design" process, whereas there is no design at all that controls the expression of genes. As far as the greater contagiousness of the relatively recent monotheisms, I'm not sure about that. In one sense, I can view polytheism as potentially more contagious simply because of the greater possibilities offered, and the developing monotheisms as attempts to stamp out that contagion. There must be some truth to the tales in the Bible about all the backsliding toward the more appealing and entertaining pantheon of gods. It seems that in order to get people to accept that only one god--the god that a priesthood wanted to make king--was to be worshipped, the heavy artillery had to be brought out, and this is where theology begins in earnest, with the commandments and the special humans who received the Word from this god, now God.

Looking at the gradualness of the establishment of monotheism with the Hebrews, which might have taken hundreds of years, as well as the equally long and gradual rise of Christian monotheism, I have some trouble with the idea of contagiousness, which implies the quick, mainly horizontal, spread of traits in a population. Institutionalization takes a great deal of time and effort, as the elites struggle and some slowly consolidate power. All of this might make the inherent qualities of a given ideology less important than how the the culture takes a hold of the ideas and makes them work, which in the context of this discussion means for the greater unity of the group.

It's tantalizing to speculate whether monotheism brought us closer to atheism or was a step back from it. I can see the answer being both yes and no. Paring down to one god from many would seem to take us to a threshold where we can drop that one, too; but having a bunch of gods was apparently a more liberal religious atmosphere in the first place. I would say with some certainty, though, that monotheism brought with it a decrease in superstitious belief.

Although beliefs were foundational to the new, organized religions, looking at religions from the social viewpoint, as Haidt does, has the advantage of bringing out aspects of religion that were there from the beginning, and which still characterize religions at least as much as beliefs do. Looking only at the beliefs, as some do, is too distancing, so you don't get a good idea of what religions are really doing.
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So you know, I've enjoyed this discussion enough that I'm buying the book and will continue to post. This quote is well worded as well, The distinction is made that religion is an enabler of out-group hostility, rather than the motive. I can see many cases where religion is the motive as well, with some passages thrown in the face of the dying heretics. But many times, it would be used to justify a man's pre-existing motive. "God is on my side."

Reading the book is better than relying on my summaries, for sure. It would be hard to rank-order motives whenever humans do anything big. I'm sure that religion is in the forefront sometimes when groups aggress against others. If the religion demonizes others as infidels, it seems likely that this can be sufficient cause for attack.
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The infinite is a good way to put it. Anything that prevents us from "closing the loop" on a specific portion of our worldview. When the mystery is solved, we no longer dwell on it, no longer fantasize about the possibilities. Our focus turns to the mundane daily life and never returns to the fantastic. I'm not sure that true infinite is necessary. Perhaps only the appearance of infinite. For example, I could see worship of mother earth as being sanctified. Earth is a finite ecosystem, but is vastly more complex than we could ever understand.

There's also something to consider with followers of physics becoming religious. Think of the mysteries within quantum physics. Perhaps not infiinite, conceptually, but they are hopelessly mysterious to the point where sanctification is all too likely. On the other hand, we do not worship Pi. I think that not only is the infinite that is the hallmark of the sacred, but a dose of the mysterious is needed as well. Perhaps not "mysterious", but "insoluble"?

This might be why science is so often attacked as a destroyer of the quality people tag with the name 'spiritual.' Science does seek to transform what we don't understand into mundane realities, but it could in its way be a carrier of the spiritual or infinite in the sense that this inquiring into the nature of things will never, ever, end. Frontiers are important for this sense of the infinite to hold, and there will always be new frontiers in science.



Last edited by DWill on Sat Aug 25, 2012 7:25 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Sat Aug 25, 2012 7:22 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
One last part to Haidt's thoughts on religion is what interests and agitates people the most: whether it's a force for good or evil. What he's already said about religion amounts to the judgment that religion was necessary for getting us to the state of social organization from which we could launch our complex civilizations. I don't think that can be considered as established, but Haidt offers a decent argument to that effect. Relgions have always enabled to people "to achieve together what we can't achieve alone." Haidt observes, however, that the same can be said of the Mafia, so does the solidarity that religion clearly provides translate to goodness, as most would recognize it? Haidt says it does, but to his credit he specifies that the data available is from the contemporary U.S. and doesn't prove anything like a general humanizing effect of religion across time and cultures. Religious people (defined solely by frequency of church attendance) give away much more money than do the non-religious. It's true that the great bulk of what the religious give is to their churches, but even this can be said to have some generally benign effect for society. Giving to churches also primes people for greater giving to secular charities, according to some data. When researchers try to figure out what qualities or beliefs are responsible for this generosity, all they come up with is this: the greater the embeddedness of the church members, the greater the generosity. This finding that makes some intuitive sense: if we have person-to-person contacts, we're going to feel more inclined to follow through with supporting an organiazation. If I knew Chris O'Connor personally, I'd be more responsible in my donations to booktalk.

Can't any organization in the secular world give people this sense of shared belonging that makes makes them sacrifice so much time and money? Probably, but I think experience would show that religions just have the formula down and can do it with considerably better results.

For these reasons, Haidt, though an atheist himself, thinks we should hesitate before we advocate ushering in a post-religious society. For him, religion is providing a degree of binding and norming that more than compensates for its other major effect: blinding its adherents to the narrowness of religious tenets. He says we do not yet know how non-religious societies will fare in the long run, the record of northern European countries not yet being extensive enough. He hints that one result of atheism is to reduce a society's ability to "turn resources into offspring." Atheists and agnostics are notorious low-breeders, after all.



Thu Aug 30, 2012 7:03 am
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
A culture that I'm always appreciative of is the Easter Asian cultures. Some of the subsets of their Taoist religions are non-theistic. It is a belief system that deviates in some critical areas from the Middle Eastern religions. The sanctification of certain principles doesn't rely on a central story(a likely false story at that), and instead is based on a more intellectual foundation. The humility and respect of Asians in general seems to be greater than Americans as well.

A belief system acting as a social glue doesn't need to have the negatives that are prominent in Abrahamic religions. Even within the category of religions, a non-theistic version can serve the purpose of fostering social adhesion.

Imagine if the dominant religion on Earth was a non-theistic variety of Taoism. I doubt you'd find the intellectual community so polarized over it's ubiquity. I also doubt it would act as powerfully as a motivator to conquest and oppression.


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Thu Aug 30, 2012 2:55 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
I'm tempted by one of Hitchens' chapter titles, "There Is No Eastern Solution," but I don'tknow enough about Eastern religion to say whether he's right that Taoism, Buddhism, etc. don't avoid the problems of the monotheistic faiths. I do think that if we're looking at the widespread adoption of more philosophical and less theistic religions, the road is pretty steep no matter which ones we're talking about. I believe the great majority of adherents to the Eastern religions are involved with theism and superstition.



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Fri Aug 31, 2012 4:56 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
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I believe the great majority of adherents to the Eastern religions are involved with theism and superstition.


I see, point taken. I need more data.

The non-theistic subset of eastern religions, do you know if they foster group adhesion as well as the other eastern religions?

What book is it in that has the title you mentioned?


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Fri Aug 31, 2012 7:39 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
The chapter title is from God Is Not Great. I don't know about the group cohesion factor of Eastern religion. One of the problems is deciding whether, if those religions don't bind quite as well as the Abrahamic ones, that is really such a bad thing. Using Haidt's mantra--morality (and religion) binds and blinds-- there's always a downside to that groupishness, so we're in trade-off land again. Some people, and I'm one of them, are going to feel more comfortable with less group emphasis anyway. Tribalism may be what got us to the point of creating our civilizations, but at this time it's possible that what we need is much less of it.

The example of Eastern religion is attractive, though. Maybe the attraction comes partly from unfamiliarity. I was reading in a museum about how the three great teachings--Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism--combined in China in no particular format to provide the people with a flexible system of belief and conduct, so that orthodoxy really couldn't exist. Yet that didn't prevent the Chinese from making great civilizations. The idea is appealing.

Haidt tells us in the book how he became a pluralist, which for him means accepting, and even welcoming, people with moral matrices different from his own. This is a difficult thing to do, since I think it's natural for each of us to want to see other people be more like us. If we think about it, though, we might see how that would have a bad effect overall. It might be more healthy to think well of people who think and behave differently from us. There might be a value in moral diversity similar to the value of biological diversity in a ecosystem.



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